The Grammarphobia Blog

Locked and loaded

Q: I’ve been thinking about “locked and loaded” since President Trump used it last week to warn North Korea. Why is it “locked and loaded” when the logic of it is “loaded and locked”? Where did this begin?

A: We think “locked and loaded” makes sense, especially when used literally on the firing range. But like many expressions, it’s strayed quite a bit when used figuratively.

We’ve seen a couple of early examples, one from the late 1700s and the other from the early 1800s, of “locked and loaded” used to describe firearms, but the expression may have been used in different ways.

In the first example, it apparently refers to a flintlock musket, loaded with ball and powder, and with its firing mechanism at half-cock, or locked.

Why was “locked” mentioned before “loaded”? Probably because the cock, or hammer, was locked first to prevent an accidental discharge while the weapon was being loaded from the muzzle, or open end, of the barrel.

To fire a flintlock weapon, the hammer must be at full cock when the trigger is pulled. The cock holds a piece of flint that strikes the steel frizzen, creating a spark that falls into the pan, igniting powder and causing the weapon to fire, as in this illustration.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “locked and loaded” is from a document in the archives of the New Brunswick Historical Society. It describes a dispute on Aug. 6 and 7, 1793, over the possession of a house and lot in what was then the British colony of Nova Scotia.

When a disputant “brought in two musquets and justice Hubbard asked him if the guns were well locked and loaded,” according to the document, he replied, “One of them is.” We assume “well locked” here meant “safely locked.”

The Wiktionary contributor who tracked down the 1793 example has suggested to us that “locked and loaded” may ultimately come from the language of gun crews on British warships. However, he hasn’t found evidence to support this.

It’s unclear in the second example whether “locked and loaded” is being used for a half-cocked or fully cocked pistol. In Lord Roldan, an 1836 novel by the Scottish writer Allan Cunningham, Davie Gellock, a young man posing as a commissioned officer, is asked to show his commission:

“Davie, snatching a pistol from his pocket, and cocking it at the same moment; ‘There is my commission, steel mounted, inlaid with gold, locked and loaded.’ ”

The next example we’ve seen, from a July 20, 1940, US War Department training manual for the M1 rifle, makes clear that the safety should be set, or locked, before the M1 is loaded.

“The instructor, after announcing the range and the position to be used, commands: 1. With dummy cartridges, lock and load; 2. Ready on the right; 3. Ready on the left; 4. Ready on the firing line; 5. Cease firing; 6. Unload. At the first command the rifles are locked and loaded. At the fourth command the safety on all rifles is set in the forward position. When the target is exposed, pupils take position rapidly and simulate firing 16 rounds, reloading from the belt.” (The M1 safety is off when set in the forward position, and on when pulled back.)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to lock and load” as “to prepare a firearm for firing by pulling back and ‘locking’ the bolt and loading the ammunition (frequently in imperative, as an order).”

The dictionary’s earliest example, from the Nov. 19, 1940, issue of the New York Times, uses the expression in the imperative: “Lieut. Col. Joseph T. Hart, range officer, boomed through his microphone, ‘Lock and Load.’ ”

The OED says the expression has also been used figuratively as “to ready oneself for action or confrontation.” The first figurative example is from the September 1990 issue of Snow Boarder: “He was locked and loaded in the starting gate, completely focused and obviously amped for his final run.”

Although “locked and Loaded” is the usual expression now, we’ve also found quite a few older examples for “loaded and locked,” as in this one from a Feb. 18, 1912, article in the Dallas Morning News about a rifle shoot: “Competitor stands at the order of trail, piece loaded and locked.”

And here’s one from the Sept. 15, 1911, article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a rifle match in Essington, PA: “The men were to take their rifles and carry them at the position of trail arms, loaded and locked.”

But as we said at the beginning, we think the expression “locked and loaded” makes sense, especially on the firing line.

By the way, a linguist would refer to two words paired together in an idiomatic expression (like “locked and loaded,” “fish and chips,” “quick and dirty”) as a binomial pair or an irreversible binomial, as we say in a 2016 post.

Many factors determine the choice of which word comes first in the pair, such as meaning, rhythm, chronology, length, and vowel position.

We think “locked” comes before “loaded” because of chronology or rhythm, but a reader of the blog suggests that it’s because a word pronounced with the tongue in front often comes before one with the tongue in back.

We’ll end with a definition of the term from Soldier Talk, Frank A. Hailey’s 1982 book about military language:

Lock and load. A firing range command for soldiers to place safety levers of weapons in the ‘save’ position and load ammunition. Soldiers frequently used the expression when in a group and a brawl or confrontation was imminent.”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 16, 2017.]

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